squatters movement in Brazil: Movimento Sem Terra FWD (long)

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Mon, 25 May 1998 10:33:16 -0700 (PDT)

Brasils Landless PeasantsMovimento Sem Terra I (1/2)

Ilan Shalif (gshalif@netvision.net.il)
Sat, 23 May 1998 15:01:16 +0300

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E

In 1997 hundreds of thousands of landless peasants banded together and
occupied over 200 stretches of unused land in Brasil. In addition,
140,000 families have been resettled on land following direct action
over the past 10 years. They are Brasil's, and in Noam Chomsky's eyes,
the world's most important social movement. Over 90 % of Brasilians
agree with what 'Movimento Sem Terra' do. Now the focus is on the cities
and the centres of power. I hung out with MST recently, here's what I

The pompously titled book, 'The World in 1998', produced by the people
of 'The Economist' magazine predict only two things can rock Brasil in
1998-currency fluctuations' and 'increasingly aggressive protests by
landless would-be farmers'1. The militant peasants who threaten to, and
are, putting the fifth largest country in the world (and seventh largest
economy) on the back foot are 'Movimento (dos Trabalhadores Rurais) Sem
Terra'-literally 'Movement (of Rural Workers) Without Land', or Sem
Terra for short. Sem Terra is the linking-up of Brasil's dispossessed;
those thrown off their land by mechanisation and industrialisation of
farming, croppers, casual pickers, those returned from the Amazon poorer
than when they went. Sem Terra call for, and take direct action to get,
all Brasil's unused but potentially productive land taken from the large
landowners (latifundios) and corporations, and given as small parcels to
the poor.

Like many of the most profound ideas the basic equation is deceptively
simple. However, what flows is truly radical. One result is large
numbers of politically active people with control over their own lives.
Not passively asking the government for assistance, but taking what they
need off the over-privileged. They have built a mass-scale social
movement of the poor forming into small-scale co-operative communities
producing what they need themselves. On their own terms. Actions have
taken the form of land occupations, marches, multi-week office
occupations, highway blockades and hunger strikes. They are heading for
where much of the European radical environmental movement wants to go: a
decentralised, militant, mass movement challenging capital and the state
to allow the poor to take control, and in their case farming
co-operatively in small autonomous groups.

=46ollowing this very short introduction to Sem Terra I will firstly
describe the process of land invasion drawing on my own vivid
experiences and what I have read about Sem Terra. Secondly I will focus
on the history of the struggle for land in Brasil and political
development of MST over its 13 years of existence which need to be put
in a historical context to be understood. The idea is to understand how
Sem Terra got to where they are so we can learn from them, while showing
what MST are about, warts and all, not a romanticised
anglo-radical-ecologist view. The broad range of Sem Terra action and
the ferocious backlash from the state and landowners against Sem Terra
is explored in the next section. The essay finishes with some
suggestions of what we can learn from them and what we can do in
solidarity with Sem Terra.

Land For All. Now.

Those who say no; no to drifting into the cities of Brasil, to joining
the 30 million plus forced from their land who have swelled the urban
slum-dweller and homeless numbers over the past 20 years, gather by
roadsides in the rural nowhere land2. Seeing whole communities lining
the grass verges of the roads it is incredible that anyone survives.
Some get by on picking crops for wages of less than Brasil's national
minimum wage of about =A370 a month. For comparison, food prices are
comparative to those in the UK. Surrounded by idle land, there's no
work. Not even any rich to beg off or rob. These are forgotten people.

Sabastiao Salgado, the internationally acclaimed photojournalist,
summarises, 'Everything is lacking; water, food, lack of sanitary
facilities, schools for children, medical attention, etc. In addition,
the people live in the greatest insecurity, subject to the provocations
and violence from jaguncoes, or hired gunmen, and other forces of
oppression organised by the estate owners, who fear the occupation of
their unproductive lands by the landless. In reality, the situation in
these 'cities' of the landless is worse than the refugee camp in Africa,
for they cannot depend on any protection from the authorities, they do
not receive the slightest international assistance and neither the
United Nations nor any humanitarian organisation comes to their aid.'3.
However this seemingly unrelenting bleakness is punctured by one
all-important factor; a hope, a dream, of land. And solid direct
political action to get it.

When a large enough group has gathered meticulous plans are laid down
for an occupation. An example of this was the invasion in April 1996 of
the 205,090 acre Giacomete plantation. In the dead of night over 12,000
people accumulate in a secret location. Once gathered, in silence, this
human column snakes the 13.5 miles to the increasingly obvious
destination. Silence, punctuated by heavy breathing, the only sign of
the arrival of the army, scythes and pitchforks at the ready, in search
of a dignified life. Everyone backs up. Everyone knows, no turning
back-a 12,000 rag-tag group on one side of an insubstantial fence, a
latifundio army of unknown magnitude the other side. With the full
selection of local farm implements raised, the red flag of Sem Terra
aloft-one brave, or foolhardy, soul bellows 'Agrarian reform-the
struggle for all'. Gate locks smash. The dam breaks. The human river
pours. There is no resistance from the well armed latifundio army. Sem
Terra slogans are shouted with abandon.

The whole Sem Terra project at Giacomete, if fully implemented, would
provide 4,000 families with the means to provide food, shelter and a
dignified life for themselves, and an estimated total of about 8,000
jobs4. The land invasion sets a whole legal machinery into action.

Brasil's constitution (like many other formerly colonised countries)
unused land can be appropriated by the state. A three stage process
takes place, firstly INCRA (the government's National Institute of
Agrarian Reform) examines the area to identify if it is a latifundio.
Secondly, a judge decides on the land's fate, and finally the landowner
is paid compensation in national Treasury Bonds and the land passes to
belonging to the peasants.

Visiting Giacomete some four months after the occupation started the
initial chaotic scenes are now filled with tranquillity fused with
boredom. The land is subtropical, cold at night in the winter, with
steam rising in the morning, lifting off the camp like the insulation
all should have, but few do. The afternoons are hot. As far as the eye
can see are neat rows of black bin-bag plastic houses secured with
string or vines. A permanent slight haze of smoke hangs above as maybe a
thousand or more wood stoves cook another meagre meal (for those wealthy
enough) of rice and beans. In several days I had still not seen any of
the piped-media third world images, stagnant pools of water, drunks,
piles of rubbish, prostitutes, open sewers, or drug dealers. Many pass
their time playing football, chatting, playing cards, practising self
defence, whatever. And of course, attending meetings.

The camp is run by an impressive system of direct participatory
meetings. Each family belongs to a group of about 30 other families. All
individual and group problems are addressed by regular meetings. In
addition, co-ordinators from these groups are nominated to deal with
camp-level crises, in separate areas such as women's issues, health
issues, security, and children's issues. The co-ordinators from each of
the 92 groups meet regularly to discuss camp problems. The camp is its
own autonomous unit. The main problem is, of course, poverty. There is
no work for 12,000 people in a field. The government know this, using it
to great effect. One tactic seems to be to starve the peasants out. As
the peasants need money for food, when things get to such a desperate
level they will be forced to leave to earn some money for food. The
government generally drags land expropriations out as long as possible
knowing this. The result is devastating: in four months 12 children had
died as a result of a mix of hunger, cold and disease. Their deaths lay
firmly with the government.

Camp life is squarely DIY. Everyone is landless and wants land, except
those in the shop selling food at the cheapest possible prices direct
from those who have gained land. The school is run by the landless, as
is the pharmacy-carefully split into two-one half with modern white
packets filling wooden shelves, the other stocked with a plethora of
roots, leaves and twigs. Perhaps the most scandalous aspect of camp life
is that there is no resident doctor. The state only provides a frankly
dodgy looking mini-ambulance (read estate car) to ferry the really sick
to hospital.

In each case a judge can decide to give the peasants the land. Or send
in the dreaded military police. Their main weapon is violence. Take this
example: in Corumbiara in the state of Rondonia, on the southern fringe
of the Amazon Basin 600 landless families in a camp called Santa Elina
were attacked by police troops. At 3 am on 9th August 1995 police laid
siege to the camp. The peasants fought back with rifles through the
night. However, at daybreak the police backed by land-owner hired
killers, all behelmeted and faces blacked swept through the camp with
shotguns burning houses to flush the peasants out. Ten peasants and two
police were killed. The police claimed self defence. However the fact
that one of the dead peasants was a 7 year old girl, shot in the back,
from close range, fleeing her attackers speaks for itself.

History of the Struggle for Land in Brasil

Since the Europeans arrived various indigenous groups and Black slaves
fought the Portuguese, in a sporadic, uncoordinated way. For the
indigenous it was war against the encroaching whites. For the Black
slaves the quest for land was bound with the struggle for freedom.
Looting of the land was (is) so prevalent that Brasil even got its name
from a wood-pau-Brasil-cut for export. The period 1850-1940 was
characterised by many uncoordinated local struggles against politically
well connected fazendeiros (farmers), struggles which were led by
'messianic' cultish figures. These struggles became more militant and
less cult followings by the 1950's.

The period from about 1950 to the US-backed military coup in 1964 was
characterised by radical struggles by large groups of peasants,
principally: Ultabs (Unioes de Lavradores e Tradalhadores Agricolas do
Brasil) in the Southern Brasilian states, Ligas Campesinas (Peasant
League) in the state of Pernambuco, and Master (Movimento dos
Agricultores Sem Terra) in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. In 1964,
thanks to the good ol' U. S. of A. peace was brought to the countryside.

The peace of the cemetery. The military regime ruthlessly crushed all
dissent. Most leaders were murdered or fled abroad. Things were so bad,
that even the current Neoliberal technocrat president of Brasil,
=46erdinando Henrique Cardoso, a then nonradical sociology professor, was
forced to flee the country.

The military regime, forgetting that the Amazon rainforest was already
populated sought to diffuse social tension and consolidate Brasil
against attack from other countries by flooding the Amazon with
Posseiros (direct producers on the land working without title).5

Once frontiers were opened up the fazendieros and southern land-based
corporations gained title to the land and began forcing the Posseiros
off the land (see Box). Meanwhile in various states in the late 1970's
and early 1980's the pro-democracy movement was gaining momentum (three
million industrial workers went on strike in 1979 alone) and peasants in
various states invaded land, and impressively were mostly successful.
Most importantly, one pivotal struggle was by the 7,400 or so Kaingang
Indians expelled from the Nonoai reserve, where they had been working
the land as Posseiros. They refused to leave the local area, and
eventually gained land. In addition, those relocated by the creation of
what was then the largest hydroelectric dam in the world, the Utaipu,
generated the 'Terra e Justicia' (Land and Justice) movement, which also
formed the backbone of MST.

In January 1984, the religious group that monitors violence against
rural people-Commisao Pastoral da Terra-brought together these disparate
groups, and in Cascavel in the state of Parana Movimento Sem Terra was born.

Political Development of Sem Terra

Movimento Sem Terra, born in 1984, has burgeoned from a few thousand
uncoordinated land-squats, to at present one of the worlds largest
direct action movements. In 1985, MST organised 35 land settlements,
mobilising about 10,500 families6. A decade later 30,476 families
occupied 146 tracts of land7. By 1997 about 40,000 families live on over
200 stretches of illegally occupied land. In addition 140,000 families
have got land through direct action8. How has this formidable rise been
possible, especially in the face of 1,636 murders between 1964 and
1995, with jail sentences being served in only two cases?

The first problem in analysing MST's emergence, consolidation and
evolution is that they often defy simple classification. The left see
Sem Terra as union-like. And yes, when it suits them they appear as
union-like. Such that the collective struggle for land is to resolve its
members' economic problems. Though this is where union likeness stops.
Sem Terra define themselves as a) a social movement of landless
peasants, b) popular, i.e. a mass organisation based on the actions of
'the people', for 'the people', and c) political-but not in the sense of
a political party, but a commitment to a wide and radical plan of social
change. No wonder the left are bemused and the right call them communists!

The political structure is fairly simple. Firstly there is no such
thing as 'membership'9. Those who are landless and do something about it
are MST. Secondly decentralisation is the buzzword, as Joao Stedile
explains, "Everything is decentralised: this is the secret of our
success. The only thing centralised is a political line". This central
line is 20 activists, 15 from camps (to keep power as far down as
possible), and is designed to give Sem Terra a national voice where
government, media and other groups can go to get information about MST.
The clever part of the structure is that only 5 of these names are ever
made public. Thus even if all five were murdered within a short
time-frame Sem Terra would march forth. Also having 5 names stops the
media focusing on only one personality.

Starting from the bottom, each family on a land-squat is in a group with
other families. These groups form a single, independent, autonomous,
camp. These independent camps work together at a state level. This is
perhaps the most crucial tier, as this networking allows the possible
mobilisation of thousands and links those who have won land with those
still struggling. There is only a skeleton at the national level. One
tiny dull office in Sao Paulo where the monthly MST newspaper, Journal
dos Sem Terra, is compiled, the 20 paid 'national co-ordinators' (who
are always to be seen touring the camps, who travel by bus or shared van
only as these are the only options available to the rest of the peasants
movement), and that's about it. The national stuff is paid for by
voluntary donations from the regional groups.

Straight out of the military dictatorship, MST living in slightly less
oppressive times started with the slogan 'Without land reform we don't
have democracy'. A year later (1985) the slogan of choice was
'Occupation is the only solution'. The need for greater militancy to
achieve anything rapidly being noted even within the wider boundaries of

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when they have land? How exactly do they come to decisions such as 'let's
focus on getting the cities and urban poor involved in our struggle'? To
this end some of us are getting hold of some MST literature and getting
it translated into English.

Whether it's our radical environmental movement doing Sem Terra style
land invasions in the future, the latest atrocity read about in the
Guardian, or the BBC with footage of half a million armed peasants
attacking the Brasilian congress. Or thousands more than the 140,000
families now living a dignified life, we'll be hearing a lot more about
Movimento Sem Terra I'm sure.

Notes and references
1. Anon (1988). The World in 1998. Economist Intelligence Unit.
2. Thirty million people excluded from land have migrated to large
cities over the last 20 years. This is well reported in the Brasilian
press. Source: Tribuna Popular: Os Fluxos Migratorios Para a Cidadge
Sao Paulo e a Reforma Agraria. Camara Municipal de Sao Paulo.
3. Salgado, S. (1997). Terra: Struggle for Land, pp 141. Phaidon Press,

4. Salgado, ibid.
5. "There was another constituency that the (post-coup development)
strategy sought to satisfy: the generals' security concerns. On the

in their offices the Araguaia and Tocantins valley, running south from
the mouth of the Amazon at Belem had special significance. Here, in the
estimation of the generals, was an artery which could carry the toxins
of subversion from the north to the heartland." From: "The Fate of the
=46orest", Susaana Hecht and Alexander Cockburn, Verso 1989, p.105.
6. Veltmeyer, H., Petra, J & Vieux, S. (1997). Neoliberalism and Class
Conflict in Latin America: a comparative perspective on the political
economy of structural adjustment. Macmillan Press Ltd., London.
7. Commisao Pastoral da Terra (1996). Conflictos no Campo Brasil 1995.
Booklet produced yearly by the religious monitoring group which

information on violence against the landless.
8. Anonymous (no date). Elementos fundamentais da Historia do MST.
MST-produced document explaining historical roots and current state
(1994-ish) of the movement.
9. Altman, B, Brener J. & Arbex, J (1996). Joao Sem Terra. Atencao!,
June, p. 7-13. Brasilian magazine interview with Joao Pebro Stedile, a
named MST spokesperson.
10. Vidal, J. (1997). The Long March Home. The Guardian Weekend
Magazine. April 26th, p. 14-20.
11. "Green Backlash", Andrew Rowell, Routledge 1996, p.214.

=46ate of the Amazon
The fate of the Amazon rainforest is intimately tied to the quest of MST
for land redistribution. The Amazon has and is used as Brasil's social
pressure release valve. Land reform would stem the tide of those
relocating to the Amazon to escape dire poverty in the north and
south-east of Brasil. In addition, those that are already in the Amazon
can make a positive contribution by getting land off the large
fazendeiros who own the cattle ranches. If peasants had these lands they
would have a stake (eating) to make these areas into long-term
sustainable enterprises.
This is not what cattle ranchers or most loggers have in mind. It would
be the peasants' permanent home, not a playground as it is for the
rich. This would have the added benefit of producing food within
Amazonia for Amazonians, and not relying on expensive imports from the
South of Brasil. ["Outside the Amazon but within Brazil, an area of
farmland the size of India lies uncultivated, as its owners treat it
simply as a financial investment."
- George Monbiot, Guardian Earth Summit supplement, June 1992.]

Scale of MST Activity
To show what Sem Terra do here is everything that happened in July 1995:

MORI style poll shows MST are more credible than the police or
politicians; Leading Brasilian sociologist backs Sem Terra struggle; New

co-operative starts in Parana; MST hold seminar about the mess of
Rondonia; Seminar about teaching basic numeracy in camps and
assentamentoes; 300 families invade 480 ha estate in Sao Paulo state;
1000+ celebrate in a 'The Land Lives' march; food from those with land
handed to poor in Dionisio, Santa Catarina; 200 families invade 217 ha
property of Ministry of Agriculture (used by only 4 horses!) including
students from Santa Catarina University; Daily TV soap opera continues
to feature MST; UN lobby Brasilian government for enquiry into April
1996 Eldorado massacre; MST activist sent to prison; Indigenous people
from 34 tribes protest in Brasilia against new laws; Articulacao
National de Mulheres (National Women's Articulation) have national
meeting about violence and women living on camps.

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